At the Carlton Club on October 9, Alistair Lexden delivered the second of three addresses to mark the tercentenary of the Hanoverian succession and its impact on the Tory Party, which had come into existence 35 years before the start of the new royal dynasty, along with its implacable opponent, the Whig Party.
He assessed the extent of support for James Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender (1688-1766). His birth in 1688 precipitated the deposition of his Catholic father King James II and the transfer of the Crown to the last Protestant Stuarts, of whom Queen Anne was the final representative. The Whig Party, which had an elaborate and effective propaganda machine, sedulously fostered the myth that he was not the offspring of his parents, but a supposititious child smuggled into the Queen’s bed in a warming-pan. There was no truth whatsoever in the well-known story (29 people witnessed the birth), but it was widely believed and did severe damage to the Old Pretender’s cause. Furthermore, this dull and rather gloomy man consistently played his cards badly. (There is no good recent biography of him.)
Even so, Alistair Lexden contended, there was significant Tory support for Queen Anne’s Catholic half-brother, who had the strongest dynastic claim to the throne in 1714, stronger indeed than Anne herself had possessed. Fifty-seven other members of the House of Stuart had a stronger claim than George I, but because they were Catholics all were set aside under the 1701 Act of Settlement which vested the succession to the throne in the House of Hanover. Religion overrode everything else.
In 1714 the Tories, firmly committed to the Church of England, agonised. The majority came down –often without much enthusiasm—on the side of George I, but some 80 Tory MPs (out of 370) could not accept that the line of succession should be broken in his favour. They pleaded with the Old Pretender to embrace Protestantism; he refused. But they still hoped that somehow or other King James III and VIII might come into his kingdom. A small number of fairly significant Tories—perhaps 25—were implicated in the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, a pitiful, mismanaged affair, which followed a few months after a massive Tory defeat at the polls in the general election of that year.
The Whigs pounced. Pamphlets, leaflets and broadsheets poured from the Whig presses associating the entire Tory Party with the rebellion. Alistair Lexden quoted from one: ‘They would against their Sovereign George rebel/ To bring a base Pretender to the Crown/ And Popish rascals to surround the Throne’. Sir Robert Walpole, now emerging as the leading Whig and in due course to become the first Prime Minister, said that the Tories ‘differed from the declared rebels only in they wanted courage to draw the sword’. It was a classic political smear which completed the destruction of the Tory Party 300 years ago.
Alistair Lexden will deliver his third and final address to mark the Hanoverian tercentenary at a meeting of the British-German Association on 20 November.